Sufia Khatun says large cyclones hit her community of Morrelganj, in southwest Bangladesh, once every quarter of a century or so. Now, she said, “we are living a great cyclone [every] two to three years, a smaller cyclone almost every year. The community needs stronger defenses against the onslaught of wind and water, she said, otherwise the area could become uninhabitable.
What is particularly infuriating is the fact that this is an unnatural disaster. Storms are more intense and the sea has risen, as wealthier countries in the distance have released huge amounts of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere by burning coal, oil and gas. “We [in Bangladesh] do not even contribute 1% of the world total [greenhouse gas] emissions, ”says Ashish Barua, program manager for Helvetas, a Swiss development organization working in Morrelganj. “I’m not doing the problem, but I’m in pain. [It’s] what we call climate injustice. “
This part of Bangladesh is a river delta, formed by a network of waterways that meander towards the Bay of Bengal. When cyclones strike, storms carry huge volumes of salt water upstream from the sea. Rising waters erode the dike-like structures known as embankments, inundating rice paddies and contaminating the ponds on which the floods. people traditionally relied on drinking water. “This salty water has an impact on our cultures, our livelihoods, fishing, everything,” Khatun said through an interpreter on an early morning Zoom call.
As a result, she says, paddy fields that once delivered three crops a year are now barren for most of the year. Allotment gardens were also damaged, depriving people of locally grown food. Chronic diseases are on the increase because of contaminated water.
With agriculture at a standstill, about 60% of the men in this community have left to look for work elsewhere, she said. “Mainly, they go to Dhaka, the capital, or Chattogram. People even migrate to India, Bangalore or Kolkata.”
Khatun helps run an organization called Mothers Parliament, which lobbies for better water infrastructure in the coastal region of Bangladesh. And if she had the chance to speak at the international climate summit now taking place in Glasgow, Scotland, she knows what she would say. Its demands are not about reducing greenhouse gas emissions; she wants help to deal with the consequences of climate change that are already underway.
“There are two clear demands,” she says, and they are directed both to the government of Bangladesh and to international governments and charities. She wants help rebuilding embankments that are supposed to hold back the rising salt water, preventing it from flooding fields and homes. Faulty embankments are the root of the problem, she says. “Yes [they are] repaired and properly maintained, then all other issues will be resolved. In addition, she wants better infrastructure to provide drinking water.
Mahmud Hossain Opu for NPR
His recipe for survival is not universally accepted, at least in the long term. Water experts are still debating the merits of the dikes and their suitability as a lasting solution to the region’s water problems. What is undisputed, however, is this region’s need to adapt to a changing climate.
In many ways, Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in adaptation. There is now a system that sends out warnings of impending cyclones and a network of sturdy cyclone shelters where people can find shelter. “We have the most effective cyclone warning and shelter program in the world,” says Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Dhaka. “Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives in previous years. Today we can issue warnings and evacuate millions of people.”
Researchers have developed new crop varieties that are more suited to growing during seasons of the year when there is less risk of flooding, and some that can tolerate more saline water, although Khatun says that only a small minority of farmers have received these seeds so far. . Some villagers grow domestic vegetables in raised containers rather than in soil contaminated with salt. During the monsoon, many collect and use clean rainwater.
In fact, the whole economy of Bangladesh is a recent success. It has grown rapidly, fueled by a growing textile industry in large cities. Life expectancy is increasing, as are measures of educational opportunities, and infant mortality is declining. The World Bank has reclassified the country from “low income” to “lower middle income”.
This growth is accompanied by an increase in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, Bangladesh recently told the United Nations that under a “business as usual scenario” the country’s carbon dioxide emissions from energy would triple over the next ten years. The country still contributes only a tiny amount of global carbon emissions, but its share is increasing.
As climate change accelerates, the fate of its coastal regions remains deeply uncertain. “If we cannot repair the embankments, in the future the Morrelganj region will be completely off the map,” said Sufia Khatun.